The other day I posted a survey about the ethics of Christians viewing movies containing “graphic sexual content.” Here are the results:
"Christians may watch movies that include graphic sexual content."
— Randal Rauser (@RandalRauser) November 18, 2017
So a plurality of respondents believes Christians should not watch films with graphic sexual content. That’s an interesting — but hardly surprising — result. However, it is a result that invites some critical reflection. In response, I’ll make several observations.
First, I suspect a plurality — indeed, a majority — would not have a principled objection to Christians viewing a film containing graphic violence. And if they did, I’d reply, “What about Hacksaw Ridge? Indeed, what about The Passion of the Christ? Renowned film critic Roger Ebert called Gibson’s Passion the most violent film he’d ever seen. Despite that, surely you wouldn’t say it is inherently wrong for a Christian to view The Passion of the Christ?”
So what’s the difference between graphic violence and graphic sexual content?
I suspect the underlying assumption is that graphic sexual content is likely to produce lust in the viewer. And it is inherently wrong for a person to view a film that is likely to make them lustful.
There is a bit of wisdom here. We should be discerning in our consumption of culture, and if some cultural product is likely to produce lust in a person, I would definitely agree that from a Christian perspective that person ought to avoid that cultural product.
But that doesn’t justify a general prohibition. After all, a National Geographic story depicting topless African women may produce lust in a twelve-year-old boy. That doesn’t warrant a general ethical prohibition for all Christians reading National Geographic stories with topless African women.
The same point applies to violence, by the way. If a person cannot watch Hacksaw Ridge without reliving past trauma or lapsing into vengeful fantasies against one’s enemies, then that person ought not watch Hacksaw Ridge. But that doesn’t justify a prohibition for the rest of us.
Moreover, content — whether it be graphic violence or graphic sexuality — can be presented in a variety of ways. It can be presented in a way that glorifies violence or heightens lust, or it can be presented in a moralistic perspective that condemns particular expressions of violence and lust.
Consider, for example, the graphic gang rape scene in the critically acclaimed 1988 film The Accused. The scene was controversial for being one of the first graphic depictions of rape in a mainstream Hollywood film. Needless to say, the depiction was intended to highlight the horror of sexual violence, not promote fantasies in the audience. If, in keeping with the intentions of the director, a person who views this depiction of rape in the film is repelled by it and thereby motivated to fight against rape, how could it possibly be inherently wrong for a Christian to view the film?
Not surprisingly, that which applies to graphic sexual content also applies to graphic nudity. Note, for example, that any principled rejection of graphic nudity in film would prohibit a Christian from watching Schindler’s List. But that is surely absurd.
Finally, it is worth noting that the Bible includes its own share of graphic sexual content. Consider this depiction of Israel’s unfaithfulness: “There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.” (Ezekiel 23:20) We should also consider Absalom’s public sexual conquests with his own father’s wives: “So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and he slept with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.” (2 Samuel 16:22) And how could we forget the playful eroticism of the Song of Songs?